RUU355: A bill to Talibanize Malaysia?

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Taking advantage of a weak and divided government, PAS is intensifying its efforts to introduce a slew of new laws that would fundamentally transform Malaysia from a secular, constitutional democracy into a fully-fledged Islamic state. The centrepiece of these efforts is RUU355 – a bill long pushed by PAS president Hadi Awang, an admirer of the Taliban – that seeks to raise the penalties for certain crimes under Shariah jurisdiction. It is one more step in the move to establish Shariah law as the supreme law of the land.

By endorsing RUU355 and promising to step up efforts to bring the bill before Parliament at an early date, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri is signalling that he is prepared to recklessly gamble with Malaysia’s future in order to keep PAS on his side. 

RUU335 along with other similar bills is just wrong for many reasons. First, although the Federal Constitution declares that “Islam is the religion of the Federation”, it is clear that Malaysia was designed and constituted as a secular constitutional democracy. Our first three prime ministers understood this and resisted all attempts to call Malaysia an Islamic state. Tunku Abdul Rahman himself was very clear on the matter. “I would like to make clear that this country is not an Islamic state as it is generally understood, we merely provide that Islam shall be the official religion of the state”, he said in a speech before Parliament in 1958. Tun Hussein Onn also held the same view, opining that turning Malaysia into an Islamic state was neither wise nor practical.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad shattered this consensus when, in a bid to outmanoeuvre PAS, he declared Malaysia “a fundamentalist Islamic state”. By politicising religion and putting it at the centre of political discourse, Mahathir sowed the seeds for the kind of extremism we are now witnessing. 

Second, the current government does not have the mandate to make such fundamental and far-reaching changes to the constitutional structure of our nation. Whichever way you look at it, this government remains a backdoor government comprising parties that were decisively rejected by voters in the 2018 elections. It does not, therefore, have the kind of moral legitimacy to initiate such reforms.

It is also worth noting that PAS itself does not enjoy widespread popular support; it has never been able to win more than 27 seats in any of the past 14 general elections. In GE14, PAS contested 157 seats but only managed to win 18. What’s more, PAS does not even have a mandate from Malaysia’s Muslims for RUU355. A comprehensive survey conducted in March 2017 found that at best the bill had the support of only 10.4% of Muslims in Malaysia. Backdoor parties without a popular mandate have no business foisting such divisive, disruptive and controversial laws on Malaysians.

Third, these measures will profoundly affect non-Muslims. It is foolish, even dangerously naïve, to think that the kind of far-reaching changes to the Constitution that are intrinsic to RUU355 will not eventually affect everyone regardless of their religious affiliation. No less than a former chief justice has opined, for example, that “if Hudud is to be executed, it must be applicable to all – Muslim and non-Muslim alike because it would become federal criminal law and not a law made by a state”. Anyone who says that non-Muslims have nothing to fear from these laws is simply being duplicitous. 

Fourth, it will prove highly disruptive to our already moribund struggle to foster national unity. It will exacerbate divisions amongst Malaysia’s diverse communities and drive Sabah and Sarawak even further away. Pushing legislation like RUU355 in a multicultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic nation such as ours is just insane, asinine and irrational. 

We have now reached a watershed moment. The fundamental character of our nation and, indeed, our very future now hangs in the balance. We cannot be complacent about such a dangerous, misguided and far-reaching piece of legislation. Every single person and every civil society grouping, every politician and political party that cherishes our secular democracy must now rise up with one voice to oppose this dangerous bill. 

It is especially incumbent on PKR, Amanah, DAP, MCA, MIC and Gerakan to speak out unequivocally against this bill. They may have their political differences, but on this there can be no disagreement. MCA, MIC and Gerakan stood idly by when Mahathir declared Malaysia an Islamic state at the Gerakan National Conference on 29 September 2001. They will not be forgiven if they make the same mistake again.

It is imperative, too, that we link up with the people of Sabah and Sarawak who have grown increasingly alarmed by Putrajaya’s pandering to PAS. Sabah and Sarawak remain our last hope to continuing as a secular multicultural democracy. Their leadership on this issue will be pivotal. We can only hope that their leaders will not trade away a foundational pillar of our nation in exchange for more state rights.

In the meantime, unless this bill is immediately withdrawn, Pakatan Harapan should cancel its recent CSA-type agreement with the Ismail Sabri administration and seek its ouster as soon as possible. It is that important. This bill will, in any case, render meaningless all the talk about reform upon which the CSA has been premised.

Columnist Johan Ariffin Samad of Sabah minced no words when he said recently that if RUU355 is implemented, “Malaysia will be like another Taliban country.” Malaysians should take his warning seriously. 

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 19th September 2021]